An almost three-hour flight journey took us from Bangalore to Guwahati, Assam, the first leg of our recent journey to North East India. The plan was to stay in Guwahati for a day, and then move on to Shillong, from there on to Cherrapunjee, then to Mawylnnong, higher and higher and higher in the hills of Meghalaya.
Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, was sweltering hot when we landed, at about 8.30 AM. The owner of North East Explorers, who had planned this trip for us, met us at the airport. He was quick to assure the crestfallen us of better weather in Meghalaya – where we were to spend the bulk of time during our holiday. With him, we drove to the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, the first pit-stop of our holiday.
I have been fascinated by the Kamakhya temple ever since I read about it, a few years ago. I had heard that this is the temple of the ‘menstruating goddess’, the goddess who bleeds once every year and that people consider her menstrual blood sacred enough to dip their handkerchiefs in it and carry them home, as tokens of good luck. This temple was, definitely, one of the spots I had eagerly wanted to visit, as we planned out this trip to the North East.
History and significance of the temple
Maata Kamakhya or Kamakhya Devi, also known as Maa Shakti, is the presiding deity at this temple, located on the Nilachal Hill, a short drive away from the city centre. The temple is believed to be over 2000 years old, but has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times in the course of time. The structure that exists now is said to be about 500 years old.
This temple has several legends associated with it, one of them being about Sati, wife of Lord Shiva. Centuries ago, King Daksh, father of Sati, organised a great yagya, to which he invited everyone except Lord Shiva. Sati went against her husband’s wishes and visited her father’s house, only to be met with humiliation. Saddened, Sati jumped into the sacrificial fire to end her life. On hearing of this, Lord Shiva came running to King Daksh’s place and, in a fit of anger, began performing the tandav nritya (the dance of destruction), holding Sati’s burning body in his hands. Parts of Sati’s body began falling on earth – apparently, 51 different parts of her body fell at 51 different earthly places, most located in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Later, Shakti Peethas (temples that are storehouses of power) came into existence at each of these 51 places. The Kamakhya temple, one of the Shakti Peethas, is the place where Sati’s female organs fell.
Every year, around June or so, the idol of Kamakhya Devi in the temple is said to menstruate. The temple remains closed for the three days of menstruation, when the Goddess is said to be resting. The water that is used to cleanse the idol collects in a pool outside the temple, and this water turns red during the three days that the Goddess is believed to menstruate. After the said three days come to an end, the temple re-opens with the fanfare and celebration of the Ambubachi Mela, a festival that attracts devotees, tantrics, photographers and tourists from all over the world.
Kamakhya Devi is believed to be a highly powerful Goddess, having the ability to grant all the wishes of her devotees. Thousands of young women visit the temple daily, to pray for wedded bliss and fertility. The temple is considered to be an important spiritual destination and a must-visit tourist spot in the city.
Our experience at the temple
When we visited the temple, it was a weekend. At about 9.30 AM, there was a huge, huge, huge queue of people waiting to get into the temple, snaking up as far into the hills as the eye could see. We had no VIP pass (an idea that I’m not very fond of, to be honest), and, from the looks of it, would have to stand in queue for at least 3 hours to get inside the temple. The walk into the temple, too, would involve much pushing and rushing, being shut in rooms a la Tirupati.
From the quick look-around that we had outside the temple, though, an unmistakable aura of commercialization came through. Touts called out to us, asking if we would like to meet the Goddess directly, without wasting any time. A number of priests told us they could perform a special pooja for us, in return for a small fee. Scores of shopkeepers tried to cajole us to buy pooja items from them and leave our footwear with them. All this while, throngs of people pulsated around us, pushing and pulling and jostling. The atmosphere was not unlike that at Kalighat in Calcutta, a place whose touts we had been warned against by numerous cabbies. At the Kamakhya temple, the surroundings were, sorrily enough, way too overwhelming and frustrating. I don’t mean to offend anyone’s sentiments here – I’m merely stating what we felt.
(Here‘s a much more prosaic depiction of the surroundings at the Kamakhya temple.)
We were exhausted, hot and hungry, having started from Bangalore as early as 2.30 AM, and the bub was beginning to get cranky and disturbed. The OH and I quickly decided to pay our respects to the Goddess from the outside, and head to our hotel. That is just what we did.
Tips for travellers
- The temple is located at a height of about 800 feet, atop a hill. Vehicles can be driven right up to the temple.
- There are several viewpoints built around the temple, from where you can get magnificent views of Guwahati city.
- There are a huge number of people visiting the temple every day, more so on weekends, festivals and other auspicious days. The temple is open from 8 AM to 1 PM and then from 2.30 PM to 5.30 PM, daily. If you wish to avoid crowds, you should probably consider visiting closer to noon or in the early afternoon.
- Beware of the touts who offer devotees a ‘quick’ darshan, in spite of the crowds, in exchange of some money.
- You can leave your shoes at any of the several shops selling pooja paraphernalia around the temple, before you enter. You might be required to buy some stuff from them in return, or pay them a small amount for safeguarding your footwear.
- General entry to the temple is free of cost, involving a humongous crowd. You could get Special Entry and VIP tickets from the temple ticket counter too, which are believed to get you easier access. For defence and police personnel, these tickets are available at slashed prices.
- Photography and videography is prohibited inside the temple.
- Animal sacrifices are allowed at the temple, on certain days. If you want to avoid gory scenes, please find out the days these sacrifices are allowed, and plan your visit accordingly.
- There are small eateries around the temple where you can grab a quick bite, if you want to.